I recently read John Lanchester’s review of three books about our social media dystopia, after which I reserved all three titles under consideration at my local library. Link here is paywalled, unless you cough up an email addy.
Books I’ve read or mostly read in recent months:
“Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying,” by Wolfgang Langewiesche. It’s a classic text about flying single-engine planes, published in 1944 and still relevant, still in print today. I purchased my copy, and I expect to keep it close at hand through my flying career.
“Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson,” by William Langewiesche. Yep, today’s foremost flying writer is Wolfgang’s son. “Fly by Wire,” is Langewiesche’s oddly downbeat insta-book about Chesley Sullenberger and the plane he ditched into the frigid Hudson. Why downbeat? Well, Langwiesche repeatedly characterizes the airline pilot occupation as a dying field. Less pay, less cossetted working conditions, and planes that are increasingly “fly-by-wire” and correspondingly idiot-proof.
“Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight,” by William Langewiesche again. An older title, it’s a collection of his essays on flying that I purchased at least a decade ago and read at that time. Holds up well on a re-read, although I’m a little put off but the generally jaded tone of his writing. I don’t expect “Gee whiz, I’m flying,” but a little more wonder and joy wouldn’t be amiss. Even his longest piece, “Inside an Angry Sky,” in which he and others do some seriously insane storm-chasing, his sangfroid seems more like boredom than courage. I’m being too harsh, I’m sure. Elsewhere in the book, his dissection of aviation catastrophes in India and Florida are gripping and authoritative, and his take on the blue-collar pressure-cooker of air traffic control is also persuasive–if now fairly outdated.
“Walden Two,” by B.F. Skinner. The roots of the ’60s counterculture perhaps can be found in this speculative “novel” of 1948.
“The Right Stuff,” by Tom Wolfe. The Mercury astronaut crew: John Glenn, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, and Deke Slayton. But the baddest flyboy didn’t go into space, and that guy was Chuck Yeager. He’s still alive–at this writing, he’s 94.
“Say Again, Please: Guide to Radio Communications,” by Bob Gardner. The standby reference for pilots learning radio procedure. It’s actually a little less good than advertised, less comprehensive and orderly than I’d expected.
“The Complacent Class” The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” by Tyler Cowen. This latest book by the prolific pop economist Tyler Cowen. He’s a force of nature, intimidatingly well-read. But he speed-reads, it seems, and his written output shows signs of being speed-written after some speed-thinking. There’s some provocative arguments in the book, such that we’ve become so satiated with our devices, our amusements, our good-enough jobs, that we’re not taking risks anymore. But it’s all a bit breezy and too-quickly written, I think. At the end, 200 pages into this thin book, he announces in bold type, like a professor underlining his thesis as class ends, the following:
The “biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress.
A lot of today’s stories, while significant in their own right, can be understood properly only in terms of that larger risk. Or if ou wish to use the language of financial economics, the possibility of cyclical patterns in history is right now the single biggest source of systemic, undiversifiable risk.
Cyclical patterns? While I was sitting here typing, this happened:
It’s the first Saturday in March. Here’s a passage from a book I’m reading:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
This is Wallace Stevens. It was quoted in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a very pessimistic look at how our increasing dependence on fiber optic networks is causing very real atrophying of our neural networks. The word I learned from this book is “neuroplasticity.” I supply a link to the definition because it is so much faster to do that than to put it into my own words. This is an example of the phenomenon that worries Carr. With so much information available with a few clicks on the keyboard, we no longer have the need to commit information to memory, or to devote much cognitive effort to anything. Our thinking has become scattered and shallow.
I worry about this, I see the symptoms in my own behavior, but I feel powerless to get off the information overload express. Tim Ferriss talks about a low-information diet. It sounds good, and I try not to chase down every stray story that I see linked on the Facebook or Twitter. I don’t post on Facebook, although I occasionally comment or offer “likes.” I defiantly avoid listening to NPR news during the 70-80 minutes I spend commuting each work day.
But still, I feel I’m frantically swimming against the firehose of information. I’ve always tried to know everything, as long as I can remember–I was a very annoying kid–but now I am desperately looking for filters. I rebuke myself constantly: Do I need to spend five minutes reading this story about plane crashes in Long Island? Stop looking at Facebook the way you aimlessly open the refrigerator. Stop. Focus. Breathe. Look around.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and for the past few hours I’ve been rather joylessly trying to enjoy leisure reading. I told myself: “The next few hours, just relax and read. Don’t worry about what else you need to do. Don’t feel anxious about time slipping away. Just live in this moment.”
Here’s another good tidbit from The Shallows, about Nathaniel Hawthorne. I took photos rather than transcribe.
Returning to this blog for the first time in four weeks is part of losing myself happily. I promised to document things like the books I read and the movies I watch. I stopped drinking a year ago in part because I felt too much time slipping by too quickly, unnoticed in the happy haze of drunken hours. [Distraction: I just paused to look at this.] Now that my evenings pass without the lubricant of alcohol, I am far more conscious of every passing second. For the last year, I have reveled in the idea that I am lengthening my lifespan this way, eyes open and alert for two or three additional hours. I’m really, really “woke.”
But this could be another trap. I’m now reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. First published in 1990, it’s dated in some ways, but I’m finding myself responding powerfully to his description of our condition in today’s hedonic treadmill. A couple of extended passages:
…symptoms of disillusion are not hard to observe around us now. The most obvious ones relate to the pervasive listlessness that affects so many lives. Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between. How many people do you know who enjoy what they are doing, who are reasonably satisfied with their lot, who do not regret the past and look to the future with genuine confidence? If Diogenes with his lantern twenty-three centuries ago had difficulty finding an honest man, today he would have perhaps an even more troublesome time finding a happy one.
This general malaise is not due directly to external causes. Unlike so many other nations in the contemporary world, we can’t blame our problems on a harsh environment, on widespread poverty, or one the oppression of a foreign occupying army. The roots of the discontent are internal, and each person must untangle them personally, with his or her own power. The shields that have worked in the past–the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions, and habits instilled by social classes used to provide–are no longer effective for increasing number of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos.
The lack of inner order manifests itself in the subjective condition that some call ontological anxiety, or existential dread. Basically, it is a fear of being, a feeling that there is no meaning to life and that existence is not worth going on with.
As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?” Childhood can be painful, adolescence confusing, but for most people, behind it all there is the expectation that after one grows up, things will get better. During the years of early adulthood the future still looks promising, the hope remains that one’s goals will be realized. But inevitably the bathroom mirror shows the first white hairs, and confirms that fact that those extra pounds are not about to leave; inevitably eyesight begins to fail and mysterious pains being to shoot through the body. Like waiters in a restaurant starting to place breakfast settings on the surrounding tables while one is still having dinner, these intimations of mortality plainly communicate the message: Your time is up, it’s time to move on. When this happens, few people are ready. “Wait a minute, this can’t be happening to me. I haven’t even begun to live.
… sooner or later we wake up alone, sensing that there is no way this affluent, scientific, and sophisticated world is going to provide us with happiness.
As this realization slowly sets in, different people react to it differently. Some try to ignore it, and renew their efforts to acquire more the things that were supposed to make life good–bigger cars and homes, more power on the job, a more glamorous lifestyle….
Others decide to attack directly the threatening symptoms. If it is a body going to seed that rings the first alarm, they will go on diets, join health clubs, do aerobics, buy a Nautilus, or undergo plastic surgery….
Daunted by the futility of trying to keep up with all the demands they cannot possibly meet, some will just surrender and retire gracefully into relative oblivion. Following Candide’s advice, they will give up on the world and cultivate their little gardens.
–Csikszentmihalyi, pp. 11-13
I suddenly remember a line from movie editor and amateur philosopher Walter Murch, a quote that I won’t look up right at this moment. The gist of it: He believes that people are happiest as adults if they can do the kind of thing they enjoyed most when they were in their preteen years.*
Movies I have watched since mid-January:
The Night Manager (Susanne Bier)–Teevee. A guilt-free, minimally taxing binge-watch.
The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet)–Museum piece, but intense. I really like the raw performances offered by African American actors. Morgan Freeman purportedly an extra in this 1964 film, but I didn’t spot him.
La La Land (Damian Chazelle)–Nothing to add about this film. Nice but forgettable.
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)–Bravura study of a half-century of racial dysfunction in LA. Deservedly acclaimed, though I agree with Tony Scott that domestic violence gets short shrift.
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson)–I can see why this museum piece of English kitchen sink realism is so beloved. Generations of British punks seem to know this one, and I can see why.
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)–Whoa, Greta Gerwig.
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)–Powerfully intimate gay drama–it probably doesn’t speak well of me that the rawness of the sensuality made me uncomfortable. But then, so did the use of alcohol and cocaine by the film’s characters.
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)–It feels like the over-ambitious script that Cianfrance put aside to make the simpler but more powerful Blue Valentine. PBtP, on the other hand, is a massive overreach for profundity and power, but with an unforgivably thin script, thin characters, and stupid scenes and character motivations, and a pointless ending.
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)–I like the idea of a film about sexy, bikini-clad young women that takes them, their needs, and their anxieties, seriously. After so many movies like Superbad and Risky Business and everything in between, where men get to do all the acting out, this time it’s the girls who have fun. To be sure, these girls are very, very bad. All this, plus James Franco. Otherwise, I don’t want to take this movie too seriously.
While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach)–Baumbach, with Ben Stiller as a Woody Allen stand-in, comes perilously close to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it’s still good stuff. Stiller’s character hits perilously close to home.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog)–Seemingly an inspiration for the more recent documentary An Act of Killing.
*What did I like to do in my preteen years? I listened to awful music. I read books about history and sports. I obsessed over things like baseball history and drawing baseball fields. I played a tabletop simulation baseball game obsessively, keeping detailed statistics. My team was the 1972 Cincinnati Reds. I will think about this some more. Maybe I’ll ask my parents.
There’s not a more fraught period of time for me each week than Sunday afternoon. It’s 3:37 p.m. as I type, and the sun has finally come out on what was a chilly, gloomy weekend. Sunday afternoons are a time of rising panic, and deepening regret. Where did the weekend go? Why didn’t I have the time of my life? Shouldn’t I have been working in the yard, or going on a 50-mile bike ride, or finishing that overdue library book? And this dread goes back to my youth: a looming pile of unfinished homework, or returning to peers and teachers that I didn’t like very much.
But I think my horror of Sunday afternoons has its deepest roots in college. I remember the fall semester–I think it was junior year. Every Saturday night I’d be out all night drinking. I’d sleep in until noon. Then I’d grab the Sunday edition of The New York Times and stumble down to the commissary in the basement of John Jay Hall. (For the life of me, I can’t remember what that eatery was called.) I’d load up on coffee, eggs and bacon, and whatever else they were serving. I’d take my tray and my newspaper to a table in front of the television. And there I’d sit, Sunday afternoon after Sunday afternoon, reading the Times and watching professional football.
After the games were over, and after I’d trudged through the Times Magazine, the Book Review, the opinion columns, the Travel section, the Sports section, and all the rest, I would go upstairs and step outside in the darkening hours of Sunday. The day was shot, and I hadn’t begun to study. I hadn’t spoken to anyone. I felt very lonely.
So, I don’t exactly remember the moment when I started making changes. I do know that I have not been an avid fan of the NFL since college. Today, while I share some of the pious disdain people have for the crippling spectacle of American football, my revulsion truly stems from recognizing it as a colossal waste of autumnal Sunday afternoons.
It’s 3:50 now. The light is a little softer outside. I am trying to embrace Sunday afternoons as a time of rest and reflection, not an occasion for mounting anxiety and despair. Birds flit about outside my window. I played soccer this morning at Twin Lakes Park. I did some administrative work for Durham Atlético. S.O. has asked what kind of music she should put on. I asked her to put on Philip Glass. (Maybe we’ll catch some of this. Pricey, though.)
The photo at the top of this post shows two pipes I used to own for the purpose of vaping. I threw them away yesterday. It’s another milestone: on Memorial Day Weekend, 2015, I smoked my last tobacco product. I’d been a smoker, on and off, for 27 years. It’s true that I wasn’t a heavy smoker these last few years, but still I puffed, every day, even while getting lots of exercise, improving my diet, and losing weight. My use of tobacco was a crutch, as it is for many, a way to fiddle and stay busy, and find a release for tension and anxiety. I’d quit many times over the years, but I’d always returned to smoking. I didn’t smoke cigarettes so much as cheap cigars and cigarillos, a taste I developed living in New York City in the mid-’90s. In Brooklyn, on Eastern Parkway among the West Indians, I fit right in.
But on Memorial Day Weekend one and half years ago, I decided to give this vaping thing a try. Rather than attack the compulsion to smoke, I decided to change substances. I quickly discovered that I didn’t much care for inhaling the flavored gas that was heated in my pipe, but it was a close enough substitute for smoking tobacco. As unsatisfactory and thin an experience as vaping was, I still had my crutch, and at least I was no longer putting smoke into my lungs.
Six weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, I finally walked away from the crutch of a vape stick. I’d kept my pipes around–just in case–but yesterday I threw them away, just after snapping this photo.
So, I don’t inhale anything besides oxygen and nitrogen, and I don’t drink. I have a lot of thoughts about my past and perhaps future relationship with alcohol, but I’ll save that for another time.
I suppose I feel virtuous, but I also feel a sense of shame. I feel the weight of all those hours lost to lonely–if meditative–intoxication and stimulation. Opportunities I may have missed, money I wasted or didn’t earn, friends I lost or never made.
These habits were things I did instead of doing things. I think back to those nights–night after night–on Eastern Parkway, where I had no social life, no worthwhile job, no money, no girlfriend, no courage, no path forward in the city. In the evenings, after another long day working as a legal assistant for a midtown Manhattan firm, I would go down to the pizza shop on Flatbush Avenue below Grand Army Plaza, grab a greasy slice of sausage-peppers-and-onion. At the bodega I would get a 40-oz bottle of Budweiser and a box of Phillies. Sometimes I sat in the bushes in the center of of the roundabout, out of everyone’s sight. I did this in the rain, in the winter, too.
I am scrambling now, trying to wring the most out of the years that are left to me. It’s easy to rid myself of these crutches when I have things to do that are more important.
Book I read:
Today is the day that the main branch of our local library closes for renovations. Voters passed a $43 million bond back in November, and as a result, the library will be closed for a whopping two years. I have mixed feelings about this. While our library was physically dingy, and socially dispiriting (it was filled every day with homeless people who need a daytime hangout), it’s a pretty decent one nonetheless. The programs aren’t bad, and the book collection is about as good as I think is reasonable to expect.
We have other branches, of course, so I’ll be able to request and check out books during the renovations. All this is preamble to noting that I have held onto an overdue library book for the stupidest reason: I want to refer to it while blogging here.
OK, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It comes freighted with heavy blurbs, like this from the Black Swan himself, Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “This is a landmark book in social thought, in the same league as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.”
That may be a bit much, but Taleb is all about going big or going home. I don’t have a coherent response to the Kahneman’s book, but I did find it a chore to finish. After a while, I felt like the chapters were one parlor trick after another, pulled from the back catalog of a long, distinguished academic career. But boy, there were a lot of nuggets, even if I think they should have constructed a more clear argument.
Here are a few, and this is the purpose of keeping the book around. I wanted to write down a few of these things.
“the world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind works.”
Cognitive ease–reduce cognitive strain if you want to write a persuasive message. Use simple language. Put ideas in verse (!).
[target] How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?
[heuristic] How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?
Kahneman divides our thinking into System 1 and System 2. The first is the intuitive snap judgment generator. This is the source of our biases, of course. The second is our deeper reasoning. But it’s lazy.
Here are some characteristics of System 1, cribbed from page 105.
generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; when endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs attitudes, and intentions
can be programmed by System 2 to mobilize attention when a particular pattern is detected (search)
links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance
distinguishes the surprising from the normal
infers and invents causes and intentions
neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt
exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI)
sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one (heuristics)
is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory)
overweights low probabilities
shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity
responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)
frames decision problems narrowly, in isolation from one another
This is all I have time for. I’m going to return this book and pay my fine. It’s 5:26 p.m., and, starting in 34 minutes, the library closes for the next two years. I’m going to miss it.
Watched the first three episodes of The Night Manager, based on John LeCarré’s early-’90s novel. The cast (Hugh Laurie, Toms Hiddleston and Hollander, etc) is excellent, but it’s basically a coffeetable tale–like an investigative article in Vanity Fair or something. Glamorous and predictable. Perfectly watchable, though.
Saw the first two episodes of O.J. Simpson: Made in America. It’s every bit as good as advertised. Its director, Ezra Edelman, turns out to be the son of Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman. The former spoke at my college graduation.
OK, off to the library. Then to walk the dog. It’s well past the magic hour outside. It’s getting dark.
UPDATE: Back from the library, where I grabbed a souvenir photo.